Recurring Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Diana Muldaur, Wil Wheaton
It is surprisingly hard to review a season of Star Trek, because, much like the characters in the show, everyone is just stoically doing their job. As with most big series of this era, there is no desire to end shows on a high, think too far ahead into the future or shake the formula up too much. Everyone simply impresses without putting too much of a big deal on anything. Yet The Next Generation remains one of the stronger Star Trek franchises, so to say that this is a show merely drifting isn’t just an insult; it is plain slander.
The Next Generation simply know how to get the best out of its material and proceeds to do exactly that. This is a show packed with solid episodes, almost every outing equal parts thrilling and enlightening. While the first season appeared to correct a few missteps from the first show, this is an episode that begins to make a name for itself with its own ideas and narratives. The Samaritan Snare is a clever episode that creates a thrilling hostage situation between the Enterprise and a new alien threat. In another episode, Jean Luc Picard gets caught up in a time loop with some sharp writing and clever plotting. And there is an amusing episode involving a War Game, Picard taking on Riker in a fun training exercise, which gets tense when an enemy Ferengi ship interrupt. The key to The Next Generation is that, not only can it write a good episode, but it knows how to balance its stacked deck, so it never falls back on one kind of episode. The first season of TNG, and pretty much all of the original show, was very guilty of figuring out what worked and just delivering that same type of episode to us time and time again. Star Trek was in danger of going stale. But here, the writers figure out how many elements are worth getting excited about and make sure that they split the types of story evenly. They balance old enemies (the Klingons return from time to time, Q gets an episode), with exciting new alien threats that are great to explore for the first time. There are episodes designed simply for having fun. For example, the Holodeck has always felt like it could be an excuse for the writing team to be lazy whenever they want, but, to their credit, the writers only use it sparingly, creating fun distractions in the middle of the season, where Data tries his hand at a Sherlock Holmes adventure or Picard hides out from a lovestruck ambassador. Sometimes, the episodes are bursting full of threat, where you are biting at the nails, unsure what is going to happen. Then other times, the show slows down and delivers a quieter, more character-based affair. The Next Generation has several tricks up its sleeve and in constantly rotating the style of episode it is giving us, it always feel fresh and invigorating. It explains how it outlived the original series with such merit.
The other thing that I feel draws the majority of fans to Next Generation is its detail to character. The original show had the winning trio, Kirk, Spock and Bones, but the rest of the cast were always left to the sidelines. Here, almost every crew member of the Next Generation has a valued place on the team. While Patrick Stewart’s incredible Picard is the captain of this ship, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is going to be heading the episode. It was a running gag that even Star Trek was aware of that James Kirk had no business fronting his own away missions. Here, Picard often sits back and lets his First Officer, the charismatic William Riker do the heavy lifting, which means that most of the time actor Jonathan Frakes gets the limelight. But almost every cast member gets their turn to impress the audience. Michael Dorn’s Worf gets much more to do this time around, as we get an insight into a fleeting past romance and some Klingon traditions that Worf has missed out on during his time at the Enterprise. Gates McFadden’s Beverly Crusher is absent this season and replaced with Diana Muldaur’s Katherine Pulaski. Pulaski never quite went down well with the fans, but she is a valued member of the team, often bringing out qualities in the others. For the first few episodes, her outside perspective is used to reaffirm the humanity of Data, bring out the softer side of Worf, highlight the dedication of LaForge. Even when a character isn’t getting the focus of an episode, the show never forgets to remind us of their character arc. Sometimes, massive character revelations are handled in the background of a story. As the main narrative arc is underway, Wesley connects with Picard. Data feels a bruised ego for the first time. Ah, Data… Out of all the characters, Brent Spiner’s fan favourite android is the one who captures our hearts the most. There are several moments where the show recognises the importance of the character and two episodes in particular are beautifully poignant. Measure of a Man is one of the greatest Next Generation episodes out there, noticeable for its lack of common trends. It is set almost entirely in a court case, as an engineer stakes a claim to experiment on Data, something the android isn’t comfortable being subjected to, and a trial opens up, debating if Data is a crew member or property. It is heart-breaking stuff and played beautifully by Spiner, who balances the obedience of the character with the quiet fear, sadness and loyalty that Data has picked up over the years. The second big Data episode is Pen Pals, which doesn’t even start as a Data-centric episode. As the Enterprise examines a collapsing planet, about midway through the episode Data breaks the Prime Directive and contacts a young child from a primitive race. He openly disrespects the rules he has always abided by, unable to bear leaving a little girl to die alone on a planet. It is the kind of writing that brings a tear to the eyes, the perfect Star Trek instalment for fans who adore Data to pieces. Who doesn’t?
And I couldn’t possibly write a review of the second season of Star Trek without talking about the Borg. The Borg is up there with the greatest Star Trek villains, definitely the strongest original creation from the Next Generation. Here, they are merely introduced, not quite getting across how scary they can be. Q, on another arrogant power trip, throws the Enterprise into far space to encounter them on a distant stretch of the galaxy. They are eerily strong, determined and, simply put, nightmarish. For those who know how dangerous they become, this episode is a constant spine-tingler and you leave, knowing what lies ahead for the crew. As Picard gravely worries about future encounters in his closing Stardate entry, it is clear that the writers already had big plans for these monstrous aliens.
Final Verdict: The second season of Next Generation is a well-written, character-driven range of episodes, cementing Picard’s run as one of the highlights of the show.